Horse Stories: Sono Flex
By Karen Nelson
Last Updated: January 18, 2009
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With Marigold, I was introduced to bigger shows and showing with a realistic hope of winning a ribbon. Even so, I was
still sheltered from the realities of the “Big Time” horse show world. With my next horse came a transition into the reality
of being with a professional show barn, and of making money with horses.
I remember quite clearly the day I met Ross. My coach asked myself and another student to accompany her to go look
at a young horse. I don’t remember exactly who we were looking at this particular horse for, I think that we were mostly
going to see this other horse at the same property that was related to her boyfriend’s good jumper, and was looking at
the off the track thoroughbred as the reason to go.

It was in the winter, and there was considerable snow on the ground, but it wasn’t all that cold out. We pulled up to a
fairly rustic property, and met with a lady named Judy. She didn’t have an arena, and I don’t even remember if she had a
barn, but the horse paddocks were nicely maintained and she seemed like a nice lady. She told us she had this 3 year-
old to be sold on behalf of his owners, as he hadn’t performed well enough at the track. As far as she knew he was
sound and sane; just not fast enough. His track name was Sono Flex, and he had no wins on his papers.

The horse she brought over to us was a gangly dark bay gelding, with a small star on his forehead. He was a decent
size, but even with his winter fuzzies, you could see he was still "just off the track" thin. For whatever reason I was the
one to get on him; I rode him in the snow at walk and trot, and even took him over a little straw bale jump. He was so
sweet!

My coach was obviously impressed with this little guy, particularly as he came with a very reasonable price tag, and
started to consider him for a younger girl at the barn, but I really wanted to find a way to get him for myself! That night I
tried to come up with a way to afford this fellow even though I still owned Marigold. I had the purchase price, and could
swing paying board on both horses for a few months, but not as a long term option.

Fortunately my coach agreed that my buying this gelding was a good idea, and managed to arrange a lease to own on
Marigold the next day!

I arranged a vet check for the gelding, and the barn two doors down agreed to let us use their arena for the pre-
purchase exam so that we wouldn’t have to do it in the snow. Poor guy was shivering when I got there; I remember being
quite worried that he wouldn’t pass the vet check and I wouldn’t be able to take him home and put him in a warm stall as
he was likely accustomed to being kept. Fortunately he passed with flying colours, and we brought him home to a box
stall at Whitemud shortly after.

His registered name was Sono Flex, but I eventually called him Ross. I am sure it was because he was a geeky looking
tall, dark haired boy...kind of like Ross on Friends. His show name was later picked to be Stetson, after the cheap hotel
we would stay in when showing in Calgary.

Soon after getting him home, we noticed something special about him; he had two hair covered horns on either side of
his forehead! Although that made me wonder at first if he was a devil horse deep down, in the time I had him I found he
didn’t have a mean bone in his body. These horns never changed as he aged, and in the summer when his forelock was
braided they were quite noticeable.

I had fun buying him a new winter wardrobe and working out a feed schedule that would put some weight on his typical
thoroughbred frame. His stall was right beside Marigolds, and I admit it felt pretty special to have two horses at the barn,
even though I was really only riding one of them.

Retraining Ross to be a hunter was far different than it had been to start Marigold. My coach rode him at first, and it
became obvious that he was a little more peppy now that he was in an arena, but he was never mean or crazy, he just
had ex-race horse habits, something I had no experience with, and at the time wasn't really accommodated as far as
training went. He had trouble understanding downward transitions, and allowing other horses to come at him or pass. He
had to get over his worries about other horses pretty quick to survive at a busy barn like Whitemud!

That first winter was mostly spent getting him to look more like a hunter, and to introduce him to arena riding and
starting him over fences. I don’t remember much of that time, so it can’t have been too eventful. At some point in the
summer my coach and her students moved to a different barn; one that allowed us more flexibility for riding times, had a
larger indoor arena, and far less riders. This was a great move, but also introduced my coach to new trainers...which I
am not sure was a good thing looking back.
At some point Marigold’s lease rider stopped leasing her, and I ended up selling her to the girl that my coach had been
considering for Ross. This girl was considerably shorter than I was, and although she was a talented rider, she lacked
finesse, and Marigold was a good horse for that job. Having Ross made it easier to see Mari with other riders, and
looking back I am surprised by how easy it was to part with her. Now days I get much more attached to the horses in my
life!

That girl had Marigold for a little over a year, and did very well with her in the children's hunter division. She was then
traded for a jumper gelding down in California. Marigold did very well down in the US, and gave many riders confidence
in the 3'0" and under hunter divisions.

A while after Marigold sold, my trainer heard about a very fancy warmblood mare for sale near Calgary, and she wanted
someone to invest in it for her. The price was a little too steep at first, but we later heard that the price was dropped
substantially as the mare had failed her vet check. I offered to buy this horse as an investment for my trainer, and that is
how I came to once again own two horses. Niki often showed against Ross in that first year, and having two horses at
shows, plus grooming was a lot of work, and really taught me about efficiency! Niki was quite a story of her own.
That spring, Ross was deemed ready to start showing. The plan was to do the small hunters at unrecognized shows as
a 4 year old, so that he would be ready to do the recognized Pre-Green hunters when he turned 5, and then hopefully
move to jumpers as a 6 year old.

By the time show season rolled around, Ross had a lovely coat, was “hunter plump”, and had grown to almost 16.1
hands tall. He has such an elegant look, and a braided mane and tail really suited him. As I was working more and
more as a groom, I took a lot of pride in the turn out of Ross. Having him appear at a show with a glossy coat, and
braided mane and tail did not cost me anything, but made a good impression. I also bought him a decent quality square
raised bridle, which I then had adjusted so that all the buckles lined up with his eye. It was a small detail, but it only cost
me an additional $12.00 and really showed off his refined thoroughbred head.

I was on a pretty tight budget, so I was lucky to be one of the thinner kids at the barn; there were often outgrown, or
shrunken breeches and rat catchers to be bought for cheap! Not being wealthy didn't mean I couldn't look the part
when I got into the show ring, I just had to prioritize where I spent my money, invest effort into finding used clothing, and
invest time into making my horse look like he was special.

Conformation wise, Ross was a very correct horse, and his legs were as clean as could be, so I also decided to do the
Hunter maturities with him at Red Deer and in Calgary. Maturities consist of 3 classes: halter, under saddle and over
fences. They cost a fair bit to enter, but have really good prize money if you do well. I would show him in the halter and
under saddle, but my coach showed him over fences. He won his halter classes at both shows, was second in the
under saddles and ended up Reserve Champion in Red Deer and 3rd overall in Calgary.

My investment horse also showed in the maturity in Red Deer (she was too old for the one in Calgary), and Ross
managed to do better than her in everything but the over fences class. I was oddly proud of him for beating Niki!

As well as the maturities, I also showed him Baby Green, Novice Rider, and my coach showed him in Novice Horse. We
also schooled him in the little jumpers a few times. Ross was the only horse I have ever owned that ALWAYS paid for
his own way at shows with the prize money he won. He may not have been fancy, but he was correct, consistent and
elegant. He was also easy to deal with at shows (other than needing to be lunged in the morning, and walked at night).
I really appreciated his lack of substantial white markings!

The main trouble with Ross though, was that he would get strong when jumping. Very strong. I was about 100 pounds
and 5’10”, so it was hard for me to control him in the ring at times. I never felt unsafe, but he would pull me past my
distances, and we would end up chipping. Back then, I didn’t understand enough to know that this was a training issue.
I did know that I didn’t want to ride in something like a double wire (which were a very popular show ring bit), but in
order to have he control I needed to feel safe, I rode him in a short shanked jointed pelham or a corkscrew full cheek at
shows, and usually rode him in a slow twist at home.

At one show though, I remember my coach was fed up with how strong he could get so she put a western bit in his
mouth…a short shanked correction bit. She was a very good rider, with exceptional hands and balance, so I don’t think
she was cruel with it, but looking back I cringe at the thought of my horse jumping with a ported bit like that. We fully
expected that she would be disqualified from that class for using an illegal bit, but instead she was first and champion
of that division…I don’t know if the judge didn’t realize what was on the horse, or didn’t care.
Judges should uphold the rules when it comes to legal tack and ethical treatment of the horses competing.
The thing is, riding him in the stronger bits didn’t help in the long term. He didn’t learn to go quieter to the jumps, or to
relax. Thankfully I resisted doing what was sadly common place: putting a tacked noseband and a short standing
martingale on him, using a double twisted wire, or drugging him. I think what saved Ross from those stronger methods,
was that I had experienced a truly dangerous horse with Radar, and knew that Ross was at least safe, and trying.
By this time I was in University, and also working full time hours with horses; teaching lessons, cleaning stalls, and
working as a groom. My schedule was busy to say the least, but I felt I was working towards something, and was given
opportunities to work with a variety of horses and to progress with my riding.

Over the winter we spent time trying to get Ross to slow down to the jumps, and to progress him to the next level. We
weren't having much success though, and we were beginning to feel that Ross might be a little more limited than we
originally hoped, and doubted he would progress past the 3'0" hunters, or 3'6" jumpers. That combined with the fact
that being in charge of both Ross and Niki, as well as school and work, was difficult to manage time wise, and financial
troubles at the barn, meant my trainer could not cover the board on our investment horse for much longer, so things
were getting tight money wise too. All this added up to a decision to sell Ross.

As I wanted to sell Ross before I had to take on the additional strain of paying for Niki's board, we decided to enroll him
in the Sport Horse Breeders sale to be held that spring at Spruce Meadows. This was pretty exciting  for me! The format
of the sale was that the horses would be vetted for soundness the first day, and schooled in the arenas to prepare for
the actual sale presentations. The sale presentations would consist of free jumping as well as ridden presentations in
their indoor arena. Select horses would be ridden in the Gala: under a spot light in a darkened arena. We would also
jump a hunter course set up in the All Canada warm up ring. People were allowed to try the horses out, but we decided
to only allow trainers we knew try him, so that we wouldn't risk someone making him look bad, or tiring him out.

We had a little while to get him ready for the sale, which was good, as I needed to not only teach him how to free jump, I
also had to have him ridable and jumpable in a snaffle in exciting conditions.

My coach got the exact format for the jumping chute from the sales manager, and I schooled him through it, low at first,
and building it as his confidence grew. It was a bounce, to a one stride, to a two stride, with the last jump being an oxer.
I took it slowly, and put him through the chute only a few times each day, and by the 3rd session he was setting himself
up beautifully for all the jumps. I could see how his jumping form was being improved by the free jumping, and how he
was learning how to set himself up. Before this I honestly thought that a rider HAD to tell the horse what to do. This was
my first time really understanding that a horse just needs to be shown how to do it, and to be set up successfully, and
then they could do it all on their own.

Not surprisingly, this new understanding of how to jump loose, also carried forward to his jumping with a rider; if I got
him in straight, with a good rhythm, he would stay quiet to the jump, and had better form. It was hard for me to resist
trying to do
something though...in this case the horse definitely learned faster than the rider! I was amazed at the
difference three free jumping sessions made in this horse; he had just needed me to show him what we wanted and to
let him then figure it out.

My other project was to get him going quietly and consistently in a snaffle bit. I thought this would be challenging, but
this too was a lesson in how smart Ross was, and in how his issues were man made. I started off by doing lunge line
work over in the snaffle and then progressed to riding. With the softer bit came a softer neck, as he was more
comfortable looking for, and accepting the contact. He also became more consistent about carrying a frame as his
frame was longer (less contracted) and so likely more comfortable to carry. Many of the flat work skills I learned on
Marigold now came back to me to try with Ross. He wasn't as laterally supple as Mari was in her back, so I realized I had
to ride him straighter nose to tail; I couldn't expect as much bend in his neck without him loosing his balance.

In hindsight, I can see where we went wrong. We took a horse that had been conditioned to run and to be strong, and
didn't consider that his existing muscles weren't allowing him to carry himself the way we wanted to. We should have
given him time to loose his race track muscles, and then we should have conditioned the correct muscles for ridden
work. Expecting him to not use the muscles he had was unrealistic and unfair. Over time our methods did work, and he
did start to develop better muscles, but we could have taught him this from the start, and saved him from the confusion
and frustration our methods must have caused. As well, we considered his speed and puling to be his temperament
rather than a result of his training, so until I prepared him for the sale, it didn't occur to us that we could go back to a
softer bit as his training progressed.

For jumping, riding him in a stronger bit to slow him down to the jumps likely just made him worry that he would not have
the freedom in his neck to clear the jump, so instead he rushed it to get the needed momentum. He may also have
worried that his jump would be disturbed mid arc, and so felt he had to jump flat to get the jump over and done with
faster. Although the problem likely started with just youthful enthusiasm, neither my coach nor I ever considered it from
his perspective and took the time to show him a better way in a non-confrontational manner. Far from stupid, Ross
finally taught himself to jump quietly and carefully when I allowed him to free jump and make his own mistakes, and find
his own solutions.
Click here for Part 2 of Sono Flex: The sale!